The rice terraces of Ifugao symbolize not only industry and engineering and aesthetic skills but also love of freedom and respect for fellowmen.
The ancient Greeks identified and named seven man-made world wonders of antiquity. These are the Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and the Pharaoh (lighthouse) at Alexandria. While the Great Wall of China and other ancient awe-inspiring man-made structures in Asia are not among the world wonders in the Grecian list, they share with the seven marvels one common denominator: almost all of them were built through the tears, sweat, and blood of oppressed or enslaved peoples.
The Ifugao rice terraces, on the other hand, symbolize not only the Ifugao industry and engineering and aesthetic skills but also their love of freedom and respect for the rights and dignity of their fellowmen. Indeed, the ancient Ifugao, rather than succumb to the harsh condition of their mountain domain, were challenged to great heights. They painstakingly carved the mountainsides into terrace fields with the barest of implements. In this process, their engineering and aesthetics skills and talent came into play. They came up with a technique of building fields that defied the height and steepness of the land. They also applied their understanding of gravity and the use of conduits to channel water from distant streams to water their fields. Their system of water distribution and dike construction controlled water flow and greatly minimized erosion.
Constructed following the bulges and depressions of the terrain, the terraces are the forerunners of the so-called "modern" technique of contour-farming. Because of the need for water for most of the year, agroforestry technologies and practices were adopted. And to preserve the forests, the Ifugao of old practiced tree planting/reforestation, forest conservation, and selective tree cutting.
Although in ancient times there were distinct social classes in Ifugao society, even the persons in the lowest rung of the social ladder maintained their dignity and self-pride. Their person was respected, their rights were upheld, and their labors for others were fairly compensated. This explains why all efforts in connection with the construction, improvement, repair and maintenance of the rice terraces, as well as the work in raising rice in the fields, from ancient times to the present, have never been tainted with the evils and injustices that marked the building of the ancient man-made wonders in other parts of the world. Also, they stand out as the only economically productive world wonder having sustained the living of the Ifugao starting from ancient times to the present.
Contrary to the common belief of most outsiders, the Ifugao rice terraces are found not only in Banaue but also in eight others of the eleven municipalities of Ifugao: Aguinaldo, Asipulo, Hingyon, Hungduan, Kiangan, Lagawe, Mayoyao, and Tinoc. Only the lowland towns of Lamut and Lista are without terrace fields. In 1996 the UNESCO declared the Ifugao rice terraces as a World Heritage.
Among the tradition-bound Ifugao, the number and area of terrace fields a person owned was an index of his social status. More rice fields spelled wealth, and these possessions enabled a family to sponsor prestige rites which were a pre-requisite to the attainment of the social rank of kadangyan or nobility.
A conservative Ifugao puts so much value and meaning on his terraced property handed down through the generations. He realizes the almost negligible production from his valued property but he does not want to part it at any cost. But in recent years, many became practical by mortgaging or selling their ancestral landholding in Ifugao and used the money they received from the deal to buy ricefields in the lowlands.
There are different work phases in connection with the culture of rice, and each used to be preceded or accompanied by the observance or performance of the corresponding rice rite done in the granary. These rites, totaling twelve and performed regularly over one year, have been discarded and abandoned due to the influence and pressure of outside cultures, especially Christianity.
Work in the terrace fields is strenuous and backbreaking, and men and women share in the different phases of labor required. During the height of the working season, work begins early and ends late in the day. Workgroups, called mun-uubbu, go by turn to each member's field daily. The practice, called ubbu, is the one single institution that plays a vital role in the regular and seasonal upkeep of the terraces. And as long as the practice is continued, it is safe to predict that the Ifugao terraces, dubbed romantically as the "8th wonder of the world", will remain and continue to be a source of wonder and inspiration for the future generations of mankind.
Source: Manuel Dulawan is the Officer-in-Charge of the Ifugao Academy and has authored two books on Ifugaos and the Ifugao culture.